Wednesday, 27 February 2013
Stick Your Spoon In And Have A Taste.
Last year, on holiday in Northern France with Fiona and our good friends Keith and Kate, as always I had sketchbooks and notebooks to record, sketch and doodle as is my want. It became clear that a trip to France described as a mere chronological list of events seemed to say little of what should be better expressed as a menu; as a travel-log of our ponderous journey of gastronomic ecstasy. Food, after all, is what France is really all about.
The various purveyors of breads, cakes, pastries, fish, meat, cheese, vegetables and fruit pull you in by the nostrils, seduced by aroma and left helpless and salivating. Displays of flavour and colour whisper sweet nothings to star-struck taste buds and induce lustful pangs of hunger.
Le Touquet; elegant seaside town on an endless stretch of beach between Calais and The Somme. Stick your spoon in and have a taste.
“It has to be fish,” I’m thinking. We were having Soupe de Poisson for lunch while I ponder on dinner. It’s my turn to cook. Like a painter staring at a blank canvas and too many colours to choose from, where do I begin?
Soupe de Oignon. I’ve made this before and it’s a simple recipe. Lots of onions chopped and sautéed in butter with a generous scattering of black pepper and salt to taste. Add water and simmer for ages. It really is that easy.
So first on the shopping list is onions and black peppercorns. That powdered dry black pepper is rubbish. It blows around like stale household dust and is an insult to the flavoursome peppercorn. Also with Soupe de Oignon is bread and cheese. In France, bread is easy and always good. No Mother’s Pride white sliced here. I admire the way good food in France is considered an act of patriotism; we Brits should learn from them in that respect.
I’ll need olive oil and of course Haricot Vert - is anything more French than that? I enter the vegetable shop like a wide eyed child in a sweet factory. First, the Haricot Vert,
“Une kilo dimi,” and the pretty dark haired girl is smiling at my heroic and slightly rubbish attempt at speaking her native tongue but I am undaunted in my quest. New potatoes and beans were all I came in for, but soon I was smelling handfuls of radishes and eyeing up the big flamboyant green lettuces. The tomatoes and courgette were too good to resist and suddenly ratatouille was added to the menu. I chose the biggest green pepper in the shop which carried that strong fruity scent which a quality pepper should have, and a fist sized bunch of wet parsley - always good with fish, and some small round shallots.
To the Poissonerie. A fish shop in Le Touquet is an adventure in itself; and art gallery of the sea. Fresh oysters piled high and apparently to be avoided if there is no ‘R’ in the month. I had oysters and enjoyed them, but also seen the results of someone eating a bad one; it’s not pretty. After much browsing I settled for some plump sea-bass fillets. My challenge was to make a meal from local ingredients for four with a budget of 25 euros. I was already way over my limit, but what the hell; you don’t go to France to skimp on the food. You can do that at home any day of the week.
To get things going, the chef and his kitchen assistant (myself and Kate respectively) began with a glass of chilled Listel Rosé - a light fragrant wine full of the flavours of summertime - and started on the vegetables. I chop a kilo of eye watering onions while Kate tops and tails the green beans. I melt a generous dod of butter in the biggest pan in the kitchen and grind in lots and lots of black pepper. A low heat melts the butter slowly so as not to burn and add the onions. Just let them gently sauté away for ages. When they’re soft and beginning to golden, add water, salt and leave to simmer away to their wee hearts’ content. I’m sure there are many ways to make an onion soup, but this is how I’m doing it.
Now finished our glasses of rosé and feel a red would be too heavy at this juncture, and anyway, it hasn’t breathed yet; we decant two bottles of Leffe Blonde into tall and perfectly formed glasses. With trusty beers in hand, Kate washes the vegetables while I chop garlic then big fat tomatoes - the shape and size of the biggest British supermarket ones, but with flavour, an impressive courgette and that mother of all green peppers. We are now flowing like a well oiled machine.
The finely chopped garlic bubbling in the olive oil with green pepper, courgette and a few herbs, and the obligatory black pepper. The ratatouille is under way and the kitchen is filling with delicious smells; the red wine breathes. Fiona is drafted in for her salad dressing skills; she was taught the art of the classic French dressing under the strict supervision of her pen-friend’s mother many moons ago. Olive oil, Dijon mustard, White wine vinegar and secrets I cannot divulge, for I am not party to.
Our Leffe Blondes are nearing the bottoms of their glasses so it seems only fitting we taste the white wine I got to accompany the fish course. Crisp, dry, chilled to perfection with a fresh zesty citrus hint. I take a shallow oven dish and butter the bottom. I lay the sea-bass fillets out and throw a good glug of wine over them, along with whole garlic cloves, coarsely chopped parsley and shallots. A few more lumps of butter here and there, black pepper and pinch of sea salt and into the pre-heated oven. I slice the remains of the morning’s bread, sprinkle with Emmental cheese and they’re ready for the grill. Another dod of butter melts in a pan, add plain four for a roux to make the sauce; the fish is almost ready so I pour some of the juices into the roux, add milk and more white wine (good job I got two bottles) and some of the Emmental. Once ready, the sauce is poured over the fish and returned to the oven.
The table is set with cold sausage, little soft cheeses, peanuts and a bowl of radishes served as an aperitif with more chilled rosé and dinner begins. At the given time, the cheese toasted breads are placed in soup bowls and the Soupe de Oignon is ladled over with many “Hmmmmms” from my hungry diners. Success.
I quickly add a splash of red to the ratatouille which has simmered to just the right consistency. We eat our soup to many “oohs” and “aaahs” and I have to say I’m pleased with the result. Sweet and light, an exercise in simplicity itself. Just quality raw materials and that magic ingredient which in this case is lots of time to tease out all that great flavour.
There is one thing left for the main course; the Haricot Vert and again, time is the essence but in this case very little. I plunge them into boiling water for three to four minutes to just blanch them and no more. They are sweet, soft and mouth-watering. A perfect accompaniment to the fish in their sauce, new potatoes and ratatouille. White wine poured and main course is served and is met with resounding approval.
Next course is the bowl of elegantly dressed lettuce served with fresh bread and much mopping ensues. What a meal. And dessert? An imposing lump of oozing mature Camembert, which has been allowed to breathe, is presented at the table and glasses are charged with the red wine. The combination is sensual and rich - a knockout blow. The cheese course is the part of a meal to linger on where wine and conversation flow at their best. Our palettes have been led through the culinary rabbit hole and appetites thoroughly sated. What could possibly follow this?
Well, as it happened, an few days earlier we were in Belgium, so naturally we had the finest chocolate in the world. I put the coffee on. Vive la France.